When I was a child, my divorced mom received benefits from Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). I am a working woman. And yes, I voted for President Barack Obama four years ago, and damn proud of it. I am in the ranks of the 47%.
Having said that let me clarify for Romney and his camp a few misconceptions about the 47%—in my life experience, most of the people I knew who received government subsidies didn't want them. A few lacked the skills and/or education to get jobs at a livable wage. Others had childcare responsibilities at a time when it was not socially acceptable for women to leave their children in the care of others, and Head Start did not exist. Also, it was believed that a woman's place was in the home, and while Black women had always worked historically, many subscribed to the social views of women at that time.
As a child, I came to realize that receiving welfare was an embarrassing social fact. It subjected us to a form of class contempt reflected in the attitudes of the social workers who would sweep through our apartment to "inspect" our residence, and comment on the fact that we were "clean" and "well-kept." I remember hiding a plug-in telephone under the linen because it was against welfare policy for us to have that item. And yet, had something happened to us, and my mother had gone out to look for work or take whatever job she could find as a domestic, the same social workers would have accused her of neglect for leaving us alone without any way to contact her in an emergency.
To this day those images of social workers, who were primarily white with a majority Black clientele—though there was the occasional Black one who acted no different towards us— looking down their noses at us is burned into my brain and emotional psyche. My mission in life was never to ask anybody for anything ever again: not my father—rest his soul, not the government, not anyone.
And so, at the tender age of 14, I lied about my age and began working in the historically wealthy white community at the intersection of Michigan and Chicago Avenues in Chicago, IL. There is today a Walgreens on that corner above which are some of the first condominiums in Chicago. Though now gone, the 777 Grill was once housed there.
I began my working career in that place as a bus girl clearing dishes and making social observation that (wealthy) people who shopped down the street at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus (which we called Needless Markup) were some of the cheapest tippers and could be the nastiest customers. They intentionally made a mess so "the help" could clean up after them—sound familiar?
THE WORKING POOR
Within a few weeks of working, I had proven my mettle and was promoted to a waitress and working the register. Back in 1967, I was the only Black face among the staff and the customers. Black folks (rich or poor) rarely ventured into the north side of Chicago. Even the late Martin Luther King observed the entrenchment of residential segregation in Chicago when he visited there in 1968 prior to his assassination.
The patterns of disparity that characterized Chicago over fifty years ago are still prevalent in the city today. The recent teachers' strike in Chicago made clear that those most affected by the outcome of the negotiations, whatever they are, will be primarily African-American children who live well below the poverty level—junior members of the 47%.
So that is the backdrop of my story. I grew up in the Henry Horner projects—now torn down to make way for wealthy people who are fleeing from the suburbs back downtown. We were poor back then, but not impoverished. We had pride and community. We received government subsidies, but it was a condition we knew was temporary because we were urged to work hard and rise above our current circumstances.
Another memory branded on my brain is waiting for the bus to go to the hospital one cold Chicago winter. I was eight-years-old. This routine lasted for almost a week. As a youngster, I contracted double pneumonia and pleurisy. It is the sickest I've ever been in my life. Running a temperature of 104 degrees and barely able to breathe without being in pain, my family took me to the hospital. Rather than keep me as a patient, because we were on welfare, the hospital sent me home and told us to return daily for almost a week for me to get an antibiotic shot.
I am certain that had we had the economic means, I would have been hospitalized immediately, since the only way we had to get to and from the hospital was to stand in the freezing cold and wait for a bus. That situation made me even more vulnerable to further complications in my exposure to the elements of the weather. I survived the illness but the memory remains as one of the negative aspects of being poor—not being able to afford the medical treatment you may need.
Throughout the ordeal, my mother bravely smiled and did her best to assure me that everything would be okay. I trusted her, but not the people who managed government support or who based my medical care on my ability to pay. As an eight-year old child, I learned early on that if you were categorized as "poor," you were too often relegated to the status of a social pariah and treated with disdain and disrespect—sound familiar? Those of us who received it, clearly understood that government support was a help-aid rather than an entitlement, and that the sooner you left it behind, the better you felt.
LIKE ROMNEY, I'VE PAID MY FAIR SHARE OF TAXES, SORT OF...
Today, I am a professional Black woman, who has earned two terminal degrees (MFA in English and PhD in Anthropology). I was able to complete college with a full scholarship that included a National Defense Loan (government subsidized), which I paid back in full. I have worked at Research I institutions like the University of Florida and the University of Minnesota. I graduated from one of the most elite colleges in the United States (Grinnell College in Iowa), and I have served as a College President (Shaw University).
Throughout this early working career, I have paid into social security and Medicare, and earned any benefits that I might receive in the future. And, I am entitled to them because I have contributed to the building of those resources since I was 14-years-old. I also have found myself in the 25-35% income tax bracket, and never complained. And, like Romney, though not at his income level, I have learned a few tricks of how to "shelter" my little bit of wealth.
It is ironic that Romney and his constituency damn big government, but it is because of tax codes created by the government to shelter the wealthiest that he is able to maintain the bulk of his wealth and ship it off-shore to places like the Cayman Islands, where, by the way, his money contributes absolutely nothing to the local economy.
TO TAX OR NOT TO TAX, THAT IS THE QUESTION
I am confused by Americans like Romney who advocate for no tax increases. Are these people who believe that money is printed on demand to pay for basic services? Are these people who have never known anyone who is unemployed? Are these people who don't understand that a successful society is one where the government has the responsibility of making sure that all of its citizens are taken care of?
If everyone were fully employed at a livable wage, there is no question in my mind that the public's reliance upon government subsidies would decrease immediately. Will there be a few who prefer subsidies over working? Absolutely. Are there wealthy who try and exploit the poorest (and even their own kind—the 53%) through schemes of mortgage inflations and charging higher interests on bank loans to people who can least afford it? Absolutely.
NEWS FLASH--The largest number of people receiving government subsidies are WHITE. While African-Americans are viewed as the poster child of welfare, in reality, the segment of the population who most benefits from public assistance is white, since they constitute the majority of the population. African-Americans represent only 12% of the U.S. population. We are not 100% of those who receive public assistance. Yet the media and politicians always portray African-Americans as the poster child of welfare recipients, and then focus on a few people who are Black and have manipulated the system.
Does anyone remember the scene from Clint Eastwood's boxing film, Million Dollar Baby? Hilary Swank's character purchases a new home for her mother who refuses to accept it because it would cause her to lose her welfare payments. In every group of people, there will always be a few who manipulate the system looking for a free lunch. However, these exceptions do not prove that public assistance or government subsidies are evil or harm our nation. Rather government assistance is the manifestation of the social contract guaranteed to us in the Constitution that all members of this country deserve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Who Romney did not talk about was the 53% who believe themselves "entitled" to their wealth and privilege, and who will probably vote for him—though a few who have some modicum of intelligence will understand that a man who is so dismissive of the poor may eventually turn on them if they are not in the wealthiest echelon of privilege. What they may also see is that it is sheer arrogance for someone to speak about people who sometimes need some help as "victims," when some of the 53% like himself and his children have never worked for their wealth, but rather have inherited it and learned how to shelter it and pass it on.
Gunnar Myrdal characterized this condition as an "America Dilemma" in his famous 1944 book of the same name: An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.
There is something very disturbing about a presidential candidate who is prone to broad-sweeping generalizations that are unsupported by factual information. There is something very disturbing about a presidential candidate who can on the one hand talk about the need for job creation yet denigrate those who receive government assistance because they are disabled or cannot find a livable wage job.
Over fourteen years ago, I wrote a book review on Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work by Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein, published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1997. What Edin's and Lein's research showed was a group of women (members of the 47%) who were expert managers of extremely limited resources. I wrote:
Making Ends Meet is a successful use of ethnographic and quantitative data sources designed to refute these gross social (and often racially biased) stereotypes. The book should educate all to the harsh realities of women who live on welfare or work minimum-wage unskilled jobs. Expert managers, these women feed, house, and take care of the medical needs of their children with paltry welfare resources and minimum-wage work. Few of us could manage to survive as they do: [Says one of the women interviewed] "Ask any politician to live off my budget. Live off my minimum-wage job and just a little bit of food stamps—how can he do it? I bet he couldn't. I'd like him to try it for one month" (p. 148).
That challenge is an intriguing one. Could Romney and company (wife, VP candidate, or any of his campaign employees) live for one month like the 47%? I doubt it. So perhaps they can at least read the book.
What this study revealed fourteen years ago is still apropos today. Very few people actually live completely off of government assistance. Most supplement by either depending on the generosity of strangers in the form of community and church organizations, charities, and foundations that provide supplemental clothing, groceries, schools supplies, etc. Others participate in the informal economic sector of bartering (which AARP has now made the new entrepreneurial landscape), receiving occasional funds from relatives, friends, and fathers (who are not permitted to live with them according to welfare regulations, if they receive Aid-to-Dependent Children subsidies—a fact that ironically promotes the continuation of single-headed households by women).
Romney and his supporters have no true understanding of poverty, which Linetta J. Gilbert and Claire Gaudiani, co-founders of The Declaration Initiative, recently wrote about in a Huffington Post blog. They asked the reader to consider how one of the wealthiest countries can tolerate the fact that millions of people (members of the 47%) live in poverty.
Americans value fairness. Yet 20.5 million Americans are born into and ensnared in a poverty trap, never getting a fair break. What has happened to America's promise that everyone get access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
If he actually believes that the vast majority of those who receive public assistance or government support in the form of earned benefits feel entitled, then he is removed from the vast majority of the American populace. And, he has no business running for president, much less being elected.
WANTED: CARING AND COMPASSIONATE PRESIDENT
Electing Romney will cement the dangerous direction in which America has been moving in which we are becoming entrenched as a society firmly divided between the have and have not's. The Depression democratized poverty and out of it grew a government safety net of programs and policies that are with us today—the New Deal. The civil disobedience and unrest of the 1960s reminded America that it still had not delivered on its promise of access to the American dream for all citizens. Thus, the Poverty programs like Headstart and Job Corp came into existence.
We need a resurgence of the New Deal and Poverty programs not an erosion of the support they put in place for citizens who suddenly found themselves dispossessed or who had been relegated to a vicious cycle of what Oscar Lewis described as the "culture of poverty." What Lewis finally acknowledged, after much critiques of the fact that his theory seemed to blame people for their own impoverishment, was that there is no gene or biological impetus that makes people poor; rather, it is the social structure that rewards the wealthy takers who can hoard their wealth, and penalizes the poor who for a variety of reasons, including racism, sexism, immigrant status, religion, and a myriad of other "isms", are unable to tap into the resources. It's not biology that makes people poor, it is an unfair distribution of wealth (yes, I said distribution) in which the wealthy invest heavily in systems of inequality that help them maintain their edge and keep others out.
Romney's children will inherit their part of the wealthy earth because he has sequestered his money in the Cayman Islands, taken advantage of government tax reforms that privilege the wealthy, sent his children to private schools to ensure that they have the best education that money can buy, and now wants to be President so he can ensure that a small wealthy (usually white) segment of the society will rule (sort of like a wealthy aristocracy) over the vast majority of us who do not have such privilege in order to keep us (the 47% and some of the others at the poorer end of the other 57% )in our place.
I am, and probably will always be, a member of the 47%. And I'm damn proud of it. I will also vote to give Obama another opportunity to try and steer this country into a future where disparities in employment, health, education, and opportunities will diminish—their disappearance may take another American Revolution. I am not naïve enough to think that with a Republican majority in key places that President Obama can eradicate these issues in the next four years. But he may be able to make some headway in reducing them, and should be given the opportunity to give it the good ole American try. Hell, his distractors may just "get a life" and stop being oppositional. They might also get voted out of office in the next season of elections—wishful thinking on my part.
I pray that President Obama will increase taxes. I am ready to pay my fair share, minus the tax loopholes that I've learned from people like Romney. The wealthy one percent who feels entitled to their wealth must recognize that it wasn't earned without the tax breaks from the very "big" government their Republican presidential candidate want to eliminate.
America needs a president over the next four years, as we try to recover from an economic disaster that took years to develop, who is intelligent, thoughtful, caring, and compassion. Those qualities point to only one logical candidate: Barack Hussein Obama, the incumbent President of the United States of America.
A vote for presidential candidate Barack Obama will be a vote of support for 47% of the American people whom Romney has dismissed, and who by their right as a citizen deserve someone who actually believes that they are entitled (yeah—I said it) to have access to all the resources and opportunities this country has to offer without having to encounter barriers of race, class, gender, immigrant status, disabilities, age, religion, sexual preference, and the like. Now that's the America I want to live in and the one I'm voting for.
I will cast my vote for a man who fought for Obamacare over Romneydisdain any day. So let's vote in November for a future for all (100%) Americans, and not just a few.
To read more:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linetta-j-gilbert/poverty-trap-america_b_1856398.html; accessed 9/24/12
http://www.declarationinitiative.org/mandate.php; accessed 9/24/12
http://opportunityagenda.org/campaigns_address_homeownership ; accessed 9/24/12
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_Dilemma:_The_Negro_Problem_and_Modern_Democracy; accessed 9/24/12
http://www.laviedesidees.fr/IMG/pdf/20101005_duvoux_EN.pdf ; accessed 9/24/12
©2012 McClaurin Solutions
Irma McClaurin, PhD is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News of Minneapolis. She is a bio-cultural anthropologist and writer living in Raleigh, NC, the Principal of McClaurin Solutions (a consulting business), and a former university president. (www.irmamcclaurin.com) (@mcclaurintweets).